An Autonomous Dilemma: When an Accident is Imminent, What Does the Car Hit?

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Car accidents can happen so quickly that there’s often nothing a driver can do when it’s over except dust off the debris and make sure they’re in one piece. We often don’t see accidents coming or only see them when they’re too late to avoid.

If we do see an accident in the making, then we have the power to choose how we react. The dilemma comes when it’s a choice between hitting a crowd of people or a single individual. Who do you hit, and how will your autonomous make that same choice?

It’s an ethical dilemma that’s not a new concept. Back in 1967, Philippa Foot called it the Trolley Problem. Imagine you’re standing at the trolley switch as a car barrels down the tracks out of control. You have the power to choose its direction and send it toward a single person on one track or five people on a second track.

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Logic says you send it toward the single person, but an autonomous car might not agree. The car also has to consider the safety of its occupants and that might make it do something that a human would consider the wrong choice. The Trolley Problem recently came up when Christoph von Hugo of Mercedes-Benz told Car and Driver its cars would put vehicle occupants first at all times.

If you’re behind the wheel, then that sounds fine, but it’s a rather distressing thought for pedestrians. In the interest of protecting the passenger from any possible injury, could your future Mercedes-Benz run down some child who wanders into the street rather than risk injury to its passengers?

As mothers everywhere tightened their grips on their children’s hands, Mercedes-Benz was quick to clarify, telling Jalopnik that a few words were omitted during the interview and that von Hugo didn’t state the corporate policy.

The company’s rather long statement spells out its policy of creating self-driving cars that are smart enough and communicate well enough to avoid accidents altogether. They see it less about who or what to hit, and more about driving in a way that will keep accidents from happening altogether.

Everyone is nervous about autonomous cars. Taking your hands off the wheel and putting all your faith in your car’s abilities is a disconcerting thought, but it’ll likely happen whether we embrace the idea or not. Rather than looking at the potential for the Trolley Problem, automakers would have us look at the overall potential for this technology to save lives.

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Humans cause accidents because we aren’t perfect. We don’t see other cars, people, and objects and we misjudge road conditions. An autonomous car won’t have the same issues. The Trolley Problem would pose a challenging dilemma for an autonomous car, but if all goes as planned, the cars of the future will work so well, the problem won’t happen in the first place.

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Nicole Wakelin

Nicole Wakelin